November 2, 2013
When students at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis started arriving for class at 8 AM on the morning of Wednesday, October 23, campus security ushered them to the back entrance. The road in front of the main gate was blocked off by three Israeli military jeeps standing guard over a pit of rubble across the street where, until earlier that morning, the new home of Asraf Ibrahim Abu Snainah was under construction.
Less than a week later, in the Al-Ashqariya neighborhood of Beit Hanina, a district of East Jerusalem, Rushdi Shweiki and his family were woken at 4:00 AM by a troop of Israeli soldiers accompanying three large bulldozers to the door of their four-story home. By 9:00 AM, when Rushdi’s brother Salah Shweiki managed to obtain a brief emergency halt to the demolition, the house was nearly gone. By 10:00 AM, after Salah’s injunction was overturned, all that remained was a tangle of steel and stone.
In both cases, the military was acting on orders from the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA), which had issued destruction notices for the homes because the owners had not obtained building permits. The Civil Administration, the governing body of Israel’s occupation, takes responsibility for approving all construction requests in the East Jerusalem district and Area C of the West Bank.
The permits can be prohibitively expensive; Salah noted that he recently paid one million shekels (about USD 300,000) for a permit to erect a small apartment building in Beit Hanina. With additional lawyer’s fees during the application process, getting a permit can often be financially unfeasible for many Palestinians. The difficulty of obtaining permits drives up the cost of living substantially in East Jerusalem, both by decreasing the supply of available housing and by forcing landlords to raise rent prices to cover the expense of the building license. Salah said that the cheapest apartments in Beit Hanina would cost at least 3500 shekels (USD 1000) per month. As estimated in a 2011 report by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, the average annual income per capita among the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem in 2007 was less than USD 3000.
Furthermore, acquiring a permit can take years – Rushdi Shweiki’s application with the Civil Administration had been in process for three years prior to the demolition Tuesday morning – and it most often ends in rejection. A recent World Bank study of the economic impact of Israeli civil control in Area C found that in 2010, the most recent year for which the report had data, the ICA approved 1.6% of building permit requests for Area C submitted by Palestinians.
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By 8:30 AM on Wednesday, Al Quds University students who had arrived for morning classes were evacuated as tear gas canisters started flying over the low walls of the campus. The gas attacks were followed by protests and clashes with Israeli military forces that closed the school for two days and left a 2m hole in the Separation Wall a few kilometers from the university.
"We’ve had problems with the soldiers before, but not like this," said Aatiyeh, a member of the Palestine Red Crescent Society who lives in Abu Dis and works at the university. This was the town’s first house demolition in his memory.
According to Aatiyeh, rubber bullets and tear gas were used extensively in town during this time.
"When they do this, for three days the people here don’t sleep," he said. As one Al-Quds University student who declined to be named characterized the Israeli response to the protests: "it’s not surgical by any means, these home demolitions and the gas. It’s a collective punishment mentality."
Clashes and evacuations happen frequently at Al-Quds University. Eight students were hospitalized with rubber bullet injuries during clashes in early September of this year after campus security personnel prevented Israeli military forces from entering the school grounds. Aatiyeh said that when soldiers are kept from entering the school, they often fire tear gas over the low walls surrounding the campus. Furthermore, students and town residents are frequently involved with or caught in the middle of clashes outside the university premises.
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"They even took my brother to custody," said Salah. "This is the situation – they destroy it, they demolish your house, then they take you to custody."
Rushdi Shweiki was released around 12:00 PM Tuesday, eight hours after the destruction of his home began and two hours after the demolition had finished and the soldiers had reopened the road.
"It’s like they are going to a battlefield," Salah said, describing the scene during the demolition, "It’s full of soldiers all around." Rushdi and his family of ten started looking for relatives in the area they could stay with as Salah oversaw the construction of a makeshift steel fence around the rubble.
As Salah explained, they had to block off the lot to ensure that local children didn’t come to climb on the rocks because Rushdi could face punitive charges from the ICA if anyone in the neighborhood were to be injured by the rubble. Additionally, Rushdi and his family are obligated to pay for the demolition of the house and the disposal of the rubble and to apply for another permit to be allowed to remove the stone heap.
Unlike in Abu Dis, where the destroyed home of Asraf Abu Snainah was under construction at the time of the demolition, Shweiki and his family had been living in their home in Beit Hanina for the past ten years. They were able to retrieve a few possessions from the house before it was demolished, but most of their belongings were destroyed with the building.
"Everybody’s scared here," said Salah, "nobody is secure."
Salah expressed his frustration with the disconnect between the Civil Administration’s treatment of Israeli and Palestinian residents. "On the other side," he said, "they build even without a license, without permission... I’ve never seen an apartment or a building...destroyed. You go to the settlements, mostly they start without permission. You have infrastructure, you have roads, electricity, water, etc. And instead of demolishing, they give them the good facilities."
According to internal data from the ICA, as reported in a recent study by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, construction is undertaken in about 75% of settlements without proper authorization. "Whereas, from 2002 through 2010," B’Tselem noted in the report, "only 176 construction permits were issued to Palestinians, at least 15,000 residential units were built in settlements during that same period, with or without permits."
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The residents of Abu Dis expressed similar feelings of being held to different standards than their Israeli counterparts. Abu Dis is technically located within the Jerusalem municipality. However, since Israel’s construction of its Separation Wall, the town has been physically split from the rest of Jerusalem. According to Adel Salah, the mayor of Abu Dis, residents of the town largely consider themselves Jerusalemites, and many retain blue Israeli IDs.
This leaves Abu Dis and its inhabitants in a precarious legal position. Israel considers the town part of Area C and denies the townspeople access to the government services in Jerusalem. At the same time, the PA maintains that Abu Dis is still a district of Jerusalem and under Israeli authority, making access to Palestinian social services difficult as well.
The sense in Abu Dis, as expressed by Adel Salah, is that the route of the wall was planned to cut off the Palestinian population of the town from Jerusalem. And yet, Mayor Salah explained, the demolition order issued by the ICA for Abu Snainah’s home cited the proximity of the house to the wall as the security risk that necessitated its destruction. "They put the wall next to the houses," he said, "and they want us to move."
Mayor Salah said that residents of the town still consider themselves part of Jerusalem, although they are now denied access to the public services and employment opportunities of the city. "There’s no hospital, no factories, different places to work," he said. "Not enough schools." At the same time, he said, the land of Abu Dis continues to be taken over by the expansion of the nearby Kedar and Ma’ale Adumim settlements. According to Adel Salah, 25,000 of the 30,000 dunams that Abu Dis once occupied have been transferred to the settlements.
Asraf Abu Snainah lost his investment in the house, and now, like Rushdi Shweiki, he must pay to have the rubble of his home cleared. Their houses are two of the estimated 27,000 homes demolished in Palestine since 1967.
As Mayor Salah explained the damage to Abu Snainah’s finances and future caused by the demolition, "he tried to start his life, but they destroy everything. Even the dreams."
Salah Shweiki took a broader view of what the destruction of these homes means for Palestine. "Justice doesn’t play," he said. "Only power plays here."